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Harry Cohen: My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point in setting out the tragic case of the family of one of his constituents. May I put to him the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, who introduced the Bill, that the inquest system is not working in such cases? There are extremely long delays, if inquests are heard at all. I do not know whether there was an inquest in the case of Paul Stewart. We heard at a reception yesterday that coroners are incredibly inconsistent from one area to another in how they deal with cases involving health and safety and death. Is there not a case for the Government to examine closely how the inquest system works and improve it?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At the heart of the matter is the need for Parliament to be clear about what it wants and to set a lead. We should be advocating that responsibility is clearly set out so that the courts can take their cue from that. Far too often the inquest system defines what has happened but does not go on to pinpoint the individual
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who should have had responsibility for ensuring that the accident did not happen. It is that weakness in our system that needs to be remedied.
A sole trader could find himself held specifically responsible for shortcomings in this area. A company may be responsible as a corporate entity but the individualsthe so-called controlling minds in the company, or those who had a subsidiary responsibility because the responsibility was specifically delegated to themare rarely held accountable under the present system. It is to ensure that individuals must accept responsibility for health and safety, just as they must accept responsibility for financial matters, that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow is introducing the Bill.
On the point about where responsibility lies, it would not be a defence for a director of finance of a great corporation to say that nobody told him that there was wrongdoing at a much lower level of the company and that he was not aware of it. All companies have a system in place to check what is happening to income and expenditure to ensure that money is being properly handled and properly reported. The same approach should apply to health and safety matters.
To complete the point about the burden-on-business argument, most of our corporate citizens strive to do these things properly. Construction, for example, is aware of the poor record in the industry and has made proposals to try to remedy the situation. Targets are being worked to along with the HSE. How dispiriting it is for those in the sector to know that they may be undercut by someone who does not take safety responsibilities seriously, or will cut corners to try to win a tender or to increase profit margins in a way that is clearly against the interests of the work force, and must be against the public interest as well.
Industry should see the HSE and the commission not as bodies that check and try to find fault, or are looking for an excuse to prosecute, but as advisers, allies, and institutions that are in place to help on health and safety problems and to set out good practice. Were the Bill to become law, it would be a defence to say, "We took the advice of the HSE and remorselessly followed it, but something still went wrong. There was metal fatigue in a component that failed, which no one could predict."
No one is advocating prosecution or holding people individually responsible for running a job in those circumstances. There might be a case against a manufacturer, but that would be a completely different matter. If advice is clearly followed and if thought has been given to how the lives of the work force can be protected, that would surely be a defence. In most cases that would have the effect of protecting the lives of the people whom we are trying to help.
Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend is right to identify the crisis, especially in construction, where the level of fatalities is rising almost annually. In part, that is because of demands to get the job done, the demise of trade unions in the industry and the level of subcontracting. Like me, my right hon. Friend was at a reception last night at which it was illustrated how a young man, Simon Jones, died. He died because he was put on a job without having had any
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training. If nothing else, the Bill will place a responsibility on directors to give workers proper and adequate training.
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Parliament sets a lead and the law is clear, I think that most corporate citizens will follow. The best of those citizens do so now. Others do not, but should. We should move in that direction.
The point is often made about the involvement of the public sectorthe civil service and local government, and it used to be said of the NHS as welland anywhere where Crown immunity applies. Crown immunity is difficult to justify. It is outdated, and for those who passionately believe in not just paying for public services but having public services delivered safely in the public sector by public employees, surely it logically follows that we should set rigorous standards for protecting the health and safety of public servants, just as we are insisting on rigorous standards for those who work in the private sector.
The real debate is not whether this should be done, as it most definitely should, but how it should be done. In my role as a MinisterI am not sure whether one is allowed to refer to this, but I willI saw notes going round Departments saying that permanent secretaries could be liable and prosecuted as individuals, and some panic-stricken hand had written in "Or maybe even Ministers", as if that would act as a sort of prompt to dissuade Ministers from introducing legislation in this area. Of course, it should not. All it means is that more energy must be applied to discovering a fair structure for the public sector, just as we are trying to find a fair structure for the private sector. The points that I made earlier about responsibility operating at different levels and in different ways, work just as well for a public agency, even for the civil service itself, as for the private sector, so the matter is not quite as difficult to resolve as is often said, but one can understand why some are worried about the consequence.
That leads me to the final point that I want to make. Yes, it is right to focus on those industries where accidents are most prevalent, such as agriculture and construction, which are at the heart of this debate, but it is also worth reflecting on the fact that by far and away the two largest areas that take our fellow citizens out of work or cause them to end work altogether are not the result of physical injury, in the sense of an industrial accident, but the twin areas of stress and back pain. It is not beyond the scope of human ingenuity to reduce the amount of back pain and to think far more carefully about how we manage stress in the workplace, which is the fastest growing area and can, in extremis, be fatal, leading people to take their own lives because they just cannot cope.
It should not be a facet of modern working conditions that those two forms of injury are increasing, but they are, so as we reflect on the important industrial areas that the Bill deals with pretty bluntly and directly, it is right to reflect also on those growing areas of predominantly white collar ill health, and to resolve to bear down on those as well. Steps can be taken in the context of health and safety, but that requires a recognition that the problem exists and a certain political leadership and resolve. It is admirable that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow has introduced his
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Bill in this area, and is saying firmly and clearly that something should be done and we know what that is, so now let us set out and do it. I strongly commend his Bill to the House.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I should preface my remarks by saying that unfortunately I have to leave the Chamber early, so I apologise both to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), who has introduced this important Bill this morning, on which I congratulate him. It is part of the armoury that will improve health and safety in Britain, and my hon. Friend should be congratulated on picking up the challenge.
However, I must share a little frustration with the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I have been debating health and safety over a good part of the last two decades, off and on, and despite the fact that he and I often disagree in our conclusions, I share with him something that is perhaps one of his hallmarksa degree of cynicism in these matters. I am cynical not for the same reasons as he is, but because I have taken part in many of these debates, which I have always found fascinating and sometimes quite uplifting, showing as they do that there is a real demand for change in the way in which we do these things. Over the years I have come to realise that I still come back, and back again, to the fact that we are not making the real progress in preventing the daily deaths in the workplace and the literally millions of days lost through ill health caused by workplace accidents and injuries.
I also share the right hon. Gentleman's cynicism about human nature, which goes back to my now rather distant youth when I worked in a number of highly dangerous industries, where people, perhaps not deliberately, but almost certainly by neglect, tried to kill me. I worked in the asbestos industry for a time and one of these days my final speech might be to say, "I leave this place because asbestos has finally got me after all these years," although I trust not, at least for a week or twobut it will not be because the company that I worked for did anything to prevent that. I worked in the demolition industry, which in those days was very dangerous. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) said, people competed on the basis of undercutting, part of which involved undercutting on the health and safety of the employees, because there was no safety culture or adequate legal framework. Since then, legislation has improved matters, but I do not doubt that the same people who employed me then would still put the younger me, were there such a person, at risk in this day and age if they could get away with it, because there is the same attitude of mind. Bad employers must be constrained, to be fair to the good employersbut more importantly, to be fair to their employees.
One matter that we have not heard quite so much about this morning but which is still important in health and safety terms, is that those responsible for health and safety also have a duty to the wider public. The farm accidents in his constituency to which the hon. Member
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for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred threaten not only the sole employee or the farmers' employees, but, potentially, members of the public who are on that same piece of farmland.
I have never made the charge that people wilfully set out to kill and maim in the workplacethat is just not sustainablebut I do make the charge that the business case argument that the very decent hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on the Opposition Front Bench would want to make does not work. The business case when P&O killed many people in the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) referred, was very important and should have scarred many of us. Lives were lost and the description of the company at the time was of a company riddled with sloppiness, right up to Sir Jeffrey Sterling, the most senior and controlling man, who clearly did not think that there was a business case for health and safety, which consisted in ensuring that the bow doors in an seagoing vessel were closed. I cannot trust the business case to be for the defence of employees and the wider public.
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